Sonny Fox may be best known for his work on television between 1956 and 1967, when he hosted a free-form children’s show called Wonderama.
But his new book, But You Made the Front Page!, mixes the joys and sorrows of his long life and broadcasting career. Those include his brief tenure as host of the The $64,000 Challenge, his pioneering role in children’s programming, and, perhaps most surprisingly, a stint in a World War II German prison camp where Jewish inmates like him were separated from non-Jews.
“As it turned out, even being a prisoner had a tremendous impact on who I am today,” Fox told NJ Jewish News in an Aug. 30 phone interview. “I was tested in battle, I was tested in a prison camp, and I was made a sergeant and tested as a leader.”
And yet, he said, “my book celebrates my successes, but it doesn’t ignore the failures.”
Fox will read excerpts from it at the [words] bookstore in Maplewood at 4 p.m. on Sept. 29. Five days earlier, he will be honored by the Paley Center for Media in New York in a ceremony hosted by Whoopi Goldberg.
The book’s unusual title refers to a remark his mother made after reading in The New York Post that her son had been laid off in 1977 after a year as vice president of children’s programming at NBC.
“I was staring balefully at the headline when my assistant said, ‘Your mother’s on the phone.’ I said, ‘Ma, I got fired.’ She said, ‘Yeah, but you made the front page!’”
If those words sound typical of a quintessential “Jewish mother,” so was much of Fox’s upbringing in the Brooklyn of the 1920s and ’30s.
“I got bar mitzva’d, the whole nine yards,” said Fox, whose given name is Irwin. “My mother kept a kosher house. My grandfather was always the president of some shul. I remember walking with the Torah from one storefront shul to another because if he wasn’t president he’d start a new shul.”
On Friday nights the family would go to the house of “Grandma Goldberg,” his mother’s mother.
“She was a lousy cook,” he remembered. “Grandpa would come in later with his hasidic friends in their black coats and curls and their tobacco-stained beards and teeth. After dinner we would sit around singing hasidic songs and pounding the table. It was filled with life. It was fun.”
But being Jewish was far more ominous when Fox served in World War II and was captured by Nazi forces during the Battle of the Bulge. After a week without food or water, he arrived at a prison camp. An American soldier forced by the Germans to register his fellow GIs asked Fox to state his religion.
“Here I am, 19 years old, surrounded by Nazis, and — why, I don’t know — I said, ‘Jewish.’ The soldier looked at me and said, ‘Protestant.’ I said, ‘Jewish.’ He said, ‘Protestant.’ That was the end of the conversation,” he said. The move saved him from a terrible fate — a few weeks later, the Nazis sent their Jewish prisoners to a slave labor camp, where many of them perished.
Returning to civilian life, Fox began hosting children’s shows in small markets, before being tapped in 1956 to host The $64,000 Challenge, a spin-off to the popular (and later notorious) The $64,000 Question.
“I was at my level of incompetence as a performer,” he acknowledged. “I couldn’t get my feet steady. Then I got fired.”
When he learned later that the franchise and several other shows were tainted by a cheating scandal, he likened it to being bumped off the Titanic’s passenger list before it set sail.
His work proved to be far more successful on Wonderama, which ran on Sunday mornings on New York’s WNEW-TV. Fox would lead kids in the studio audience in games like “Who Do You Want to Be?” and “Getting to Know You” and conduct interviews with celebrities, including Robert Kennedy.
“I had no production budget, and I had no performing talent. My net assets were the kids,” he said. Other kid show hosts of that era “worked hard at their craft. They wrote skits. They threw pies. But I couldn’t do any of that.”
Fox, with his slick black hair and deeply cleft chin, would often sit down and chat with audience members one-on-one.
“Kids do not deal in abstracts,” Fox observed. “When you ask them about God they are very specific. Once I asked kids, ‘How tall is God?’ One kid said, ‘Five-eight.’ Another said, ‘Five-eleven and a half.’ I asked them what makes you so sure that God is a he? This 10-year-old boy said, ‘Well, God is his name. God can’t be a girl’s name.’”
Fox left Wonderama in 1967 and was succeeded by Bob McAllister.
Back when Fox was an active force in television, the three extant networks “were programming not to offend, not to alienate.” Fast forward 30 years and “there is still good programming on now,” he said, “but the attention span has changed; you have 110 channels and you have computers and you have video games and you have hits that would have gotten bombed by the networks in the 1970s.”
Later in his career Fox chaired Population Communications International, a nonprofit that tried to get soap operas to include family planning issues in their story lines.
Fox said he has “always been politically active as a Democrat, but I am not as active as I used to be. Now I am 87 and I have given myself permission not to be responsible for the rest of the world. I have given that responsibility to my four children and seven grandchildren.”
Asked how he views the state of the world and the upcoming presidential election, Fox said, “Let me use my 87 years to get historical.”
Despite having lived through World War II, the rabid anti-communism of the 1950s, the Vietnam War, and the scandals of the Nixon administration, he expressed a strange sort of optimism about the current era.
“Every once in a while carbuncles like these come out on the body politic, but somehow we always managed to figure out a way back to sanity. Eventually sanity will prevail here and these stupidly insane things that are now going on with the Tea Party and the Paul Ryans will eventually go away. But you know what? We live in perilous times.”